Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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When the band Green Day released “American Idiot” in 2004, the idea of the concept album was hardly new. Most notably The Who, but even the duo of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had produced rock albums with a story line long before. Indeed, some saw the whole idea as potentially stale. Still, this post-Nirvana alternative punk rock band had hit on a theme of dystopia which resonated with the young of the mid-2000s. The album sold over 6 million copies in the U.S. alone, and won a Grammy.
The political climate, the myopia of their elders toward things they found important, unending and crippling war and the senselessness of life in the wake of 9/11 had led some young people (and some not-so-young people) to a sense of disconnect. This was the central theme of the plot, such as it was, of the album. It followed a suburban youth into the squalor and disaffection of the city, where pointlessness waits amid the adventure. This is where Michael Meyer grabbed ahold and, along with Green Day lyricist and front man Billy Joe Armstrong reworked the basic concepts of “American Idiot” into a Broadway rock opera worthy of Tony nods.
Now on tour at the Ahmanson Theatre, “American Idiot” offers up its grim but compelling tale in a wave of energy and grimy power. Everyone has flaws. Every hope becomes wryly twisted. Yet, this is also the story of hard-fought maturity and a coming understanding of what, in the end, one can hang on to. It’s loud. It’s dark. It’s unremitting – running 95 minutes straight, without an intermission. It’s compelling, catching one up in the story so thoroughly that this may prove the shortest 95 minutes one could spend.
Van Hughes leads the cast as Johnny, the “Jesus of Suburbia” who so hates his small town. Frustrated with his beer-slugging, pointless life, he and his two friends decide to escape. There Johnny meets an anti-authority demagogue and pusher, and a girl. The struggle for his passion between the drug-laced world of this St. Jimmy and the genuine love he shares with the girl swept into this lurid scene forms the foundation of the piece. His two friends face their own struggles: Will with the realization he is now a father and must stay behind, and Tunny with an isolation which leads him to join the army.
Hughes makes Johnny boyishly charming even in his anger, and desperate for solace in the midst of manipulation. Jake Epstein’s Will becomes the physical embodiment of the trapped man, pulled and repelled by his responsibilities. Scott J. Campbell’s Tunny runs into the wall of war’s aftermath as his dreams literally fly away. Each becomes a powerful statement.
Joshua Kobak inhabits the catalyst in Johnny’s thrashings: St. Jimmy – a character played, at one point, by Billy Joe Armstrong himself – and vibrates with a disturbing charisma throughout. Here is the mesmerizer whose easy fixes make compelling arguments in Johnny’s world. Gabriellle McClinton balances this as the sensual, caring Whatsername – the woman who would love Johnny, even rescue him, if only he’d open his eyes. Leslie McDonel and Nicci Claspell provide the other important women of the piece, surrounded by an almost ferociously energetic ensemble.
Michael Meyer’s direction keeps the story moving, and provides moments of extraordinary visuality, especially a dance in the air (choreographed by Steven Hoggett) by a wounded Tunny. Christine Jones’ Tony-winning set, made up of piled junk and television screens, provides its own punctuation to the actions in the script. The onstage band which circles around the performers pounds out the Green Day music like the best possible cover band.
In short, this thing is a visual and auditory feast. It is also rock concert loud, brutal in its content and absolutely not for young children. There are some problems, caused both by the medium and the volume, in understanding occasional lyrics. Still, most of those Green Day fans I know already have the words memorized. For example my daughter – who was 13 when the album came out – could still sing every line along with every character for all 95 minutes, if called upon. For the rest of us it is a bit more awkward.
What is most interesting about this show, besides the event itself, is the intergenerational nature of the audience. Those who love rock operas, those who love Green Day, and those who love seeing the morphing of musical theater come together to engage in a theatrical experience together. This bodes well for the future of the entire medium, as new people discover theater can be for them, while those already sold on musical theater get to experience the stretches which keep it new.
What: “American Idiot” When: through April 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with additional performances at 2 p.m. Thursday April 5 and 19. Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, in the Music Center, 135 S. Grand Ave in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $120 Info: (213) 792-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org